Saturday, 14 February 2009

The Memory Theatre

I know I bang on about Peter Greenaway's baroque, mesmeric Prospero's Books (much hated by academics in English because undergraduates tend to write about it repetitiously for 'Shakespeare and Film' essays) but it struck me like a bolt of lightning at twelve, and subsequent watchings have not decreased my fondness for it.

Here's the opening section. I was and am transported by the stately, rhythmic procession of 5.11 and following, aware even at twelve that the point was that we were somehow seeing into Prospero's mind, taking stock of the complex and hermetic mental furniture of a Renaissance mage. It is a Memory Theatre animated with naked spirits, enacting emblems, tropes and mythico-allegorical scenes.* These semblaunts are quite fun to spot, especially from 6.45: I can see a veiled woman leading a child, who might be intended to be Truth and Innocence, then a couple of attempts at bull-horned men who might be Alpheus or other river gods, a naked black woman with a headdress of gold leaves (an alchemical virgin or possibly the mulier amicta sole?), then a female Marsyas hanging upside down, the three Graces, Neptune with Thetis (?), Leda and the (rather obviously stuffed) swan, some more sea-deities, and some Native Americans, probably from the still-vexed Bermoothes.

John Crowley's fascinating and frustrating novel Little, Big has a fine description of the the Art of Memory:

The Art of Memory, as it is described by ancient writers, is a method by which the Natural Memory we are born with can be improved tremendously, beyond recognition in fact. The ancients agreed that vivid pictures in a strict order were the most easily remembered. Therefore, in order to construct an Artificial Memory of great power, the first to choose a Place: a temple, for instance, or a city street of shops and doorways, or the interior of a house - any place that has parts which occur in a regular order. The next stage is to create vivid images or symbols for the things one wishes to remember -- the more shocking or highly-coloured the better, according to the experts: a ravished nun, say, for the idea of Sacrilege, or a cloaked figure with a bomb for Revolution...

But the greatest practitioners of the old art discovered some odd things about their memory houses the longer they lived in them...It was discovered, for instance, that the symbolic figures with vivid expressions, once installed in their proper places, are subject to subtle change as they stand waiting to be called forth. That ravished nun who meant Sacrilege might, when one passes her again, have acquired a depraved air about the mouth and eyes one hadn't thought he had bestowed on her, and something wanton about her
deshabille that looks Somehow purposeful rather than forced: and Sacrilege changes to Hypocrisy, or at least borrows some of its aspects, and thus the memory she symbolises alters perhaps in instructive ways. Also: as a memory house grows, it makes conjunctions and vistas that its builder can't conceive of beforehand. When out of necessity he throws up a new wing, it must abut the original place in some way; so a door in the original house that previously opened onto a weedy garden but suddenly blow open in a draught and show its astonished owner his grand new gallery of just-installed memories from the backside, so to speak, at a left-hand turning, facing in the wrong direction -- also instructive; and that new gallery might also turn out to be a short cut to the ice-house where he had put a distant winter once and then forgot.

* Cynics might say it looks more like a group of jaded RADA drop-outs, the men mincing around listlessly, the women jiggling their bosoms whilst doing eurythmics. I can never take Ariel-as-widdling-cherub seriously: he's too reminiscent of the kind of soda siphons which Britons tended to bring back from holidays in Malaga in the early 80s.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Your wise comments inadvertently revived my memory of watching this at the local arthouse cinema with about a dozen other people scattered in the dark, all cringing at Sir John's tuchis projected for all to admire. My wife kept muttering how cold all those admittedly more attractive (than Sir John) extras must have been frozen in their tableaux. Still, I bet Greenaway's tribute may prove worthy of another look, if between raised palms, thanks to at-home big-screen magic now.

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